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Politics

China tightens the vise on social media

Xi government probes major platforms to maintain its grip

CHENGDU, China -- The Chinese government has begun investigating a trio of hugely popular internet services in an apparent effort to contain opinions and information that could hinder the consolidation of power by President Xi Jinping.

Users post material that threatens national security, the Cyberspace Administration of China said Friday. In a rare move, the agency has launched simultaneous probes into Tencent Holdings' WeChat mobile chat service, Sina's Weibo microblogging service and search engine giant Baidu's Tieba forums.

The content with violence, terrorism, false information, rumors and pornography undermines social order and national security, according to the agency, which accuses the providers of not doing enough to control it.

The probes are based on suspected violations of cybersecurity legislation that took effect in June. The three services have a total of 1.35 billion users, with much overlap due to people who use more than one.

Each in its own way has the potential to drive public opinion. The government could effectively control public opinion in Chinese cyberspace by putting a leash on the three services, an internet executive said.

WeChat is especially popular, with a user base of more than 900 million. People -- men and women, young and old -- use it for messaging, making calls, and sharing photos and videos, as well as making payments.

More and more users broadcast their personal opinions via WeChat official accounts. Many lawyers, for instance, post their views on social issues. As the authorities stepped up scrutiny, more than 300 accounts were closed or suspended in early August. The new probes could mean even more getting shut down.

Weibo gets many posts responding to news and has been used to promote participation in demonstrations. In July alone, the company deleted around 118,000 posts related to politics and suspended or took other action on more than 400 accounts.

The Tieba forums appear to be frequently used to boycott or attack companies from countries whose relations with China have chilled.

In China, views expressed in cyberspace hold much sway over public opinion because traditional mass media are viewed as a mouthpiece of the ruling Communist Party and have little influence on people hungry for the truth. The Xi government thus seeks to keep a lid on views that could weaken its grip ahead of a party congress this fall where a new national leadership team will be installed.

Since the death of Nobel Peace Prize-winning activist Liu Xiaobo in state custody this July, the government has been expending a great deal of resources on containing posts by those seeking to mourn him.

The cybersecurity legislation has driven Apple to pull certain virtual private network apps, which allow people to surf the internet anonymously, from its app store in China. The law has also led Tencent and three other companies to shut down a combined 1,000-plus blogging and other accounts.

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